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Technology in Education Is ‘No Substitute for Human Interaction’, Says Unesco

Online teaching is “no substitute for human interaction”, Audrey Azoulay, director-general of Unesco, said as the organisation released its latest global report on technology in education.

Titled “Technology in Education: A Tool on Whose Terms?”, the 2023 Global Education Monitoring Report urges countries to set their own terms for how technology is designed and used in education so that it never replaces in-person, teacher-led instruction, and supports the shared objective of quality education for all.

It warns that the digitisation of education services has grown without appropriate governance and regulation “to ensure that users, especially children, are protected when they use education technology.”

The report was released on Wednesday in Montevideo, Uruguay, at a Unesco event attended by more than a dozen education ministers from around the world. 

“The digital revolution holds immeasurable potential but, just as warnings have been voiced for how [technology] should be regulated in society, similar attention must be paid to the way it is used in education,” Azoulay said in a news release. “Its use must be for enhanced learning experiences and for the well-being of students and teachers, not to their detriment.”

“Keep the needs of the learner first and support teachers,” she added.

The report proposes four questions for policymakers to consider as they deploy technology in education:

1. Is It Appropriate?

The report found that using technology can improve some types of learning in some contexts. However, it also cited evidence showing that “learning benefits disappear if technology is used in excess or in the absence of a qualified teacher.”

“Keep the needs of the learner first and support teachers. Online connections are no substitute for human interaction.”

Audrey Azoulay, Unesco’s director-general

For example, it noted that distributing computers to students does not improve learning if teachers are not involved. It also noted that internet-enabled mobile phones could be an appropriate means of connecting disadvantaged students to distance learning. But in the classroom, smartphones have been shown to be a distraction to learning, yet fewer than a quarter of countries ban them in schools. 

“We need to learn about our past mistakes when using technology in education so that we do not repeat them in the future,” said Manos Antoninis, the report’s director. “We need to teach children to live both with and without technology; to take what they need from the abundance of information, but to ignore what is not necessary; to let technology support, but never supplant human interactions in teaching and learning.”

The report also found that inequalities between students increase when instruction is exclusively remote.  

A study of open educational resource collections found that nearly 90 percent of higher education online repositories were created  in either Europe or  North America and that 92 percent of the material in the Open Educational Resources Commons global library was  in English.

2. Is It Equitable?

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the rapid shift to online learning left out at least half a billion students worldwide, mostly affecting the poorest and those in rural areas, the report says. The right to education was increasingly synonymous with the right to connectivity, yet one in four primary schools did not have electricity. The report calls for all countries to set benchmarks for connecting schools to the internet before 2030 and for the focus to remain on the most marginalised.

3. Is It Scalable?

The report said sound, impartial evidence of technology’s added value in learning is needed. “When the evidence only comes from the technology companies themselves, there is a risk it may be biased,” the Unesco news release said.

Most of the evidence available comes from the United States Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse, which reviews studies of education interventions, including technology-related ones. Its reports, however, provide more evidence of what doesn’t work than what does, the Unesco report noted. “An incisive summary of the evidence contained in the Clearinghouse pointed out that only 188 of 10,654 studies [less than 2 percent] showed that products had ‘strong or moderate evidence of effectiveness’,” the report said.

Furthermore, many countries purchase education technology without assessing its long-term costs, the report says. That allows the educational technology market to expand while basic education needs remain unmet.

“We need to learn about our past mistakes when using technology in education so that we do not repeat them in the future. We need to … let technology support, but never supplant human interactions in teaching and learning.”

Manos Antoninis, director of Unesco’s Global Education Monitoring Report

The cost of moving to basic digital learning in low-income countries and connecting all schools to the internet in lower-middle-income countries would add 50 percent to their current financing gap. A full digital transformation of education with internet connectivity in schools and homes would cost over a billion dollars per day just to operate, according to the report’s authors.

4. Is It Sustainable?

The fast pace of change in technology is putting strain on education systems to adapt. Skills like digital literacy and critical thinking are increasingly important, particularly with the growth of artificial intelligence. The report included data showing that 54 percent of surveyed countries had defined the skills they wanted to develop, but only 11 out of 51 governments had curricula for artificial intelligence.

The report’s authors said that in addition to these skills, basic literacy must not be overlooked, because it is critical for digital applications too. It has been shown that students with better reading skills are far less likely to be duped by phishing emails.

The report highlighted the need for appropriate training for teachers, yet cited studies showing that only half of countries currently have standards for developing teachers’ information technology skills. Also, few teacher training programmes cover cybersecurity, even though 5 percent of ransomware attacks target education.

Only 16 percent of countries guarantee data privacy in education by law, the report found. It cited one analysis that found that 89 percent of 163 education technology products recommended for online learning during the pandemic could surveil children, and that among 42 governments that provided their own online education products during the pandemic, “39 used digital technology in ways that risked or infringed children’s rights.” 

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